Popular culture

Opening of the General Idea retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada

One of Canada’s most influential groups of artists, General Idea typified the irreverent spirit that swirled in the country’s art and culture throughout the late 20th century. Decidedly anti-establishment and brimming with both social criticism and playfulness, the collective trio was an icon of queer culture that sported the veneer of consumerist culture. Early next month, the National Gallery of Canada will pay homage to General Idea with its largest retrospective to date.

Comprised of three Canadian artists Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson, General Idea established strong geographical and cultural roots in Toronto and New York from 1969 to 1994. They were leading pioneers and influencers in the spheres of conceptual and installation art, using images of modern life – such as drugs, advertising, kink culture and television – to present a twisted mirror to society. Of their Miss General Idea 1971 Beauty Pageant where people of any gender could be candidates, to their massive display of blue and white pills in the facility One year of AZTto their surprisingly ambivalent and poignant series AIDSa shipment of Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE; General Idea’s works derided, challenged and inspired.

One year of AZT by General Idea; courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada and Sarah EK Smith.

Tragically, two-thirds of the band died in 1994 – Partz and Zontal died of complications from AIDS. In many ways, the works that General Idea created towards this bitter end of the group were injected with the most personal quality of their art. Shamelessly bringing the struggles they and their community have faced with people like One year of AZT and AIDSthe group’s insistence – as well as their playfulness, visible in pieces such as play doctor— has not diminished in the least in the face of the terrifying epidemic. Many parallels can be drawn between their work and that of Andy Warhol at the time, but General Idea, as always, was unafraid to wear its identity on its sleeves and embrace the queer community through its work.

AIDS by General Idea; courtesy of ACI and Sarah EK Smith.

The General Idea Archive has been part of the National Gallery of Canada’s collection for some time, and the NGC retrospective aims to dive deep into the works of this truly iconic trio. Encompassing over 200 works spanning their two and a half decades together, it will combine “major installations as well as publications, videos, drawings, paintings, sculptures and archival material.” Accompanying it is a new 756-page book titled GENERAL IDEA which explores the works of the collection and the collective at large. The gallery also organizes the General Ideas Symposium on June 4 to explore with scholars the influence of General Idea.

General Idea was the exact kind of force that modern art should be – biting, intelligent and emotionally honest. They delved into aspects of popular culture closer than we’re supposed to, and in doing so, they struck gold. Self-mythology, fame and cunning self-promotion made the trio icons before anyone knew it – and now the National Gallery of Canada can help whole new generations of artists to realize it too.